Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ethics Researcher Charged in Data Theft

Harvard ethics fellow accused of hacking MIT
A former employee of Reddit has been accused of hacking into the computer systems of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading almost 5 million scholarly documents from a nonprofit archive service.

Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old researcher in Harvard University's Center for Ethics, broke into a locked computer-wiring closet in an MIT basement and used a switch there to gain unauthorized access the college's network, federal prosecutors alleged Tuesday. He then downloaded 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, an online archive of more than 1,000 academic journals, according to an indictment filed in US District Court in Boston.

“As JSTOR, and then MIT, became aware of these efforts to steal a vast proportion of JSTOR's archive, each took steps to block the flow of articles to Swartz's computer and thus to prevent him from redistributing them,” the court document stated. “Swartz, in turn, repeatedly altered the appearance of his Acer laptop and the apparent source of his automated demands to get around JSTOR's and MIT's blocks against his computer.”
What the heck was he going to do with all those articles?  He had access to them as part of his job, I would hope (I do).  Going into business to sell them?  I doubt it. As a get rich quick scheme, that just sucks.  According to prosecutors  he intended to give them to some kind of file sharing group to post to get around the pay wall system ordinary folk face.

I have some sympathy for that view.  The majority of the scientific article published were paid for by government grant funds (US, state or foreign) and ethically, it makes sense that their content should belong to the people that paid for the research, through their government.

In the old days, the publishing houses had an important role to play in providing the editing, publishing, and distribution of the literature to interested people and libraries.  No other institutions had grown up with that capacity.  Yep, they made a profit at it.  Good for them.

But now, the internet offers the possibility of instant self publication.  If you can write it, you can put it on line, and Google (and probably the NSA as well as others) will make sure it lives forever.

However, ethically, at least in my opinion, the way to reform the system is not to steal everything and put it on line, but to move academic publication off of dead trees and on line as soon as possible.  Once we all get used to looking on line first, and all the current research is going there, the profit motive for holding the old stuff behind pay walls will fade.

And what will happen to Aaron Swartz?

Swartz was charged with computer intrusion, fraud, and data theft. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 35 years in prison, restitution and forfeiture, and a fine of $1 million. A PDF of the indictment is here.
 Even the indictment is on line. I doubt it will come to 35 years, or a million bucks.

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